In this new year, I am picturing the Pittsburgh friends who were digging my solo on the blues in the above video as being with me in my New York apartment as I finish my Mary Lou Williams book manuscript. Cheering me on right alongside them is an is 84-year-old prophet named Anna with whom I’m becoming reacquainted.
Here’s something I wrote a few days ago on how I found her:
12/30/19: At this end of 2019 on the sixth day in the octave of Christmas (yes, octave like the twelve notes between C and C on a piano!), I am thinking about a woman named Anna. She only came to mind because she was in my morning reading, the gospel for today. Anna is described as a “prophetess” (I hate it when this “-ess” suffix is added to any word deemed as masculine!), and she’s really old. I’d always imagined her with a wizened face and always thought that her butt must hurt because she’d spent years sitting inside the temple fasting and praying (and somehow in my mind she is always sitting while doing these things).
I also thought of Anna this way because St. Luke says that she is “advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband…and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.” I guess I thought that Anna had sat in a dark cave of a temple for decades.
But today, I saw this woman differently. I saw the phrase that said that Anna’s husband died after only seven years of marriage. And that she was still a widow at the ripe old age of 84. What had happened in between?
Earlier this morning, I fought my body’s wishes to stay in bed, waking at 7 am to check in with my 6:30 am writers’ group (I woke up late). I’ve been staying in my mom’s basement for the last ten days taking an extended sort-of-holiday to make a bigger dent on my Mary Lou Williams book and to celebrate Christmas with family. In this basement, I keep reminding myself of writer Anne Lamott’s mantra to take my writing- to take everything- “bird by bird” (or, as I heard in a screening of Frozen II that I watched with my family two days ago, to “do the next right thing”).
I consciously whispered Lamott’s “keep pushin’” phrase to myself as I started highlighting what felt like every other sentence in a Word doc of one of my book chapters that needs major edits (and also needs to be finished yesterday). After an hour of becoming more and more anxious that I’ll never get everything done in time, I grumpily muttered “bird by bird” and went upstairs to make breakfast.
Returning to the basement on my granola break, I closed the worrying document and opened the daily readings email from the USCCB (the Catholic bishops who decide a lot of stuff), hoping to find something to quell my fear and frustration. And I read about Anna. Why hadn’t I really seen her before?
I started journaling, imagining Anna’s story between the lines of Luke’s gospel. All I really know about widows in Anna’s day is that they were totally dependent on others to care for them, unless their dead husbands had left them oodles of money (which, of course, was rare). But besides that practical piece, did Anna love her husband? Was she in deep grief when he died? Even if there hadn’t been much love between them, how could Anna go on? What promise did a new year, a new week, day, or hour hold for her when her spouse of seven years was dead? How was she supposed to go and buy groceries with no money? Would any of her few girlfriends allow her to come over and cry? What was the “next right thing” for Anna?
All I know is that Anna remembered something. She remembered her gift. The gospel says that Anna was a prophet(ess), someone who could hear from God and then share what she heard with others. This gift had never left her. It had been her friend all throughout her marriage and even as a young child. She had to tend to it now.
Whether she was deep in grief or just scared through her bones at the change that her life would entail without her husband, Anna knew who she was. She knew that her gift of prophecy had to be shared, even if she didn’t know exactly how.
Luke tells us is that Anna never left the temple, “worshiping night and day with fasting and praying.” I don’t really know what this looked like- but I do know that it means that whether it was for two years or thirty, Anna practiced staying close to God. She may have been well-known as a prophet or perhaps was just looked at as an eccentric old woman who had nowhere to go but a dark, musty corner in a small sanctuary.
But here’s where Anna literally comes out of the shadows.
Luke says that Anna “came forward.”
Mary and Joseph had just brought the infant Jesus to be presented at the temple in Jerusalem. The pilgrim family would have been unknown to anyone there. They were strangers. But Anna knew them. Her gift of prophecy pushed her to “come forward” and “speak about the child to all who were awaiting . . . redemption.”
In this new year that feels turbulent, full of change, and sometimes overcrowded with darkness, I want to remember Anna, who honored her gift and blessed others by standing up and speaking out. I believe that when each of us share our gifts, we are in some small way redeeming the world. We don’t know who is waiting to receive our presence, just as I didn’t know who was waiting to hear me play the blues in Pittsburgh. May this new year yield many opportunities to share ourselves, and may we stay awake enough to recognize the Christ child in each person we encounter.